Twelve years after he became the No. 1 pick in the draft, Matthew Stafford and the Detroit Lions appear headed for an amicable divorce.
According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, the team and its one-time franchise quarterback have mutually agreed to find him a new home via trade before the 2021 NFL season. Stafford, who turns 33 in February, has cap hits of $33 million and $26 million the next two seasons, which are the seventh- and 11th-highest figures among quarterbacks in those respective campaigns.
Stafford has had a fascinating career so far. Although he doesn't have many personal or team accomplishments — just one Pro Bowl and three postseason games, all losses — he's shattering passing records left and right. He was the fastest quarterback to reach 15,000 passing yards in 2013 and the fastest to reach 45,000 this season — and he's been the fastest at every interval in between. He's also 16th and climbing on the career touchdown pass leaderboard, and should eclipse 300 next season if he gets the opportunity to start and stays healthy.
Almost every team that is in need of a quarterback, save for the Jacksonville Jaguars who look set to take Clemson's Trevor Lawrence No. 1 overall in April's draft, should be interested in Stafford. He appears to have many years ahead of him and has been one of the league's iron men with 136 straight starts before fractured bones in his back ended his 2019 season early.
Stafford shouldn't be nearly as expensive as fellow trade target Deshaun Watson, who could cost three or more first-round picks, but if recent history has taught us any lesson, he should command at least one first-rounder. Similarly talented veterans Jay Cutler, Carson Palmer, Sam Bradford each netted at least as much for their respective teams.
Which teams are the best fit? We're breaking down the five best matches before looking at some honorable mentions:
The Colts are looking for their fourth starting quarterback in as many years after potential Hall of Famer Philip Rivers announced his retirement and Jacoby Brissett hits free agency. Andrew Luck ain't walking back through these doors either. Fourth-rounder Jacob Eason could one day be a starter, but the Colts need a more ready-made starter for this contending roster.
Stafford seems like a perfect fit, especially considering how similar his game is to Rivers. Additionally, the Colts have the second-most salary cap space in the league after the Jaguars, which means they wouldn't have to cut any key players to make room for him. Even a potential reunion with Lions teammate Kenny Golladay, a pending free agent, wouldn't be out of the question. One potential snag for a deal is that the Colts' 2021 first-rounder is low (21st) compared to other potential suitors.
New England Patriots
Cam Newton, unfortunately, doesn't appear to be the answer in New England, so the quest to replace Tom Brady continues on. Bill Belichick has no interest in a long-term rebuild, so an established veteran like Stafford would make a lot of sense, and they have the cap space (fourth-most in the NFL) to make it work and finally surround their quarterback with playmakers for the first time in about a half-decade.
Belichick has been loath to part with first-rounders in the past — unless it was for multiple draft picks — but this time it may be worth the cost. Stafford is leagues better than other non-Dak Prescott free agents Mitchell Trubisky, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jameis Winston, and Tyrod Taylor, although the Patriots could roll the dice again on Newton with a better supporting cast and hope for better health and results.
New Orleans Saints
The silver lining of Drew Brees' disappointing final campaign was that his injury allowed the Saints to see that Taysom Hill is not a long-term starting option. He's very useful in a variety of roles, but he lacks the arm strength and fumbles too much, among other issues, to be a full-time starter.
Stafford would be an excellent option to plug in and keep Sean Payton's operation going at full speed. It would be a shame to waste Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas while they're still productive, and Winston is an incredibly risky option. Adding Stafford will require Herculean cap gymnastics — the Saints are more than $100 million over the projected cap currently — but Payton and Co. have been the vanguard of this dark art.
Washington Football Team
Since Dak Prescott is presumably returning to Dallas, Washington cannot expect to repeat as NFC East champs without a big upgrade at quarterback. With all due respect to Alex Smith, while his story is immensely inspirational, his play is more becoming of a backup at this point.
There are two connections that make this marriage even more possible — Washington's new general manager, Martin Mayhew, was the Lions' GM who drafted Stafford. Additionally, Washington has an extra third-rounder, which may make it easier to part with draft capital to land the former Georgia Bulldog.
San Francisco 49ers
The defending NFC champions' collapse this past season wasn't Garoppolo's fault per see, but there are plenty of questions about his future with the team. He's only played in 31 of a possible 56 games with San Francisco due to various injuries, and his numbers have been more average than extraordinary when he has played. Garoppolo has two years left on his contract at a combined $53.2 million, but only $2.8 million of that is guaranteed, so it would be easy for the 49ers to move on.
Stafford's arm strength could unlock head coach Kyle Shanahan's offense and make it extremely dangerous with a fully healthy array of options in George Kittle, Deebo Samuel, and Brandon Aiyuk to go with a devastating zone-blocking scheme that seemingly creates quality running backs. The 49ers have limited cap space, but cutting Garoppolo would do the trick.
As stated earlier, there shouldn't be a lack of interest in Stafford. He'd be an upgrade for perhaps a dozen teams, so it's just a matter of how much teams are willing to part with to get there. For instance, these five teams all would be a possibility but may have other options that work better for now.
Given John Elway's affinity for tall quarterbacks with strong arms, the Denver Broncos would seem like a natural fit. Drew Lock has disappointed since the Broncos used a second-rounder on him in 2019, but he's under contract for two more years at a combined $4.1 million, so they may opt to see if there's any chance of salvaging what they already have on a cheap deal. Elway remains president of football operations for the Broncos, but he ceded the general manager role to George Paton earlier this month. So Elway won't be the only team executive involved in this decision.
Another AFC West team, the Las Vegas Raiders, would be a potential fit since Derek Carr has been good-not-great as he wraps up his five-year, $125 million deal. He has a dead cap hit of just $2.5 million for next season and is more affordable than Stafford at a combined $42 million over the next two seasons. This shouldn't be overlooked considering the Raiders are already $23 million over the projected 2021 cap.
If the Houston Texans end up trading Deshaun Watson without landing a young quarterback like Sam Darnold or Tua Tagovailoa in return, Stafford, a Dallas-area native, could make some sense. However, this looks like a long-term rebuild, and new GM Nick Caserio may prefer to draft and develop a quarterback rather than push to contend right away.
On the flip side, there have been rumors that the Carolina Panthers want to cut short their rebuild and contend now. Teddy Bridgewater has played admirably and is just 28 but may not be a franchise quarterback. Carolina will likely need to trade up from the eighth pick to land one of the top quarterbacks in the 2021 class, so Stafford would represent a different path to upgrading the position.
Finally, the Chicago Bears are still in search of a solution after declining Mitchell Trubisky's fifth-year option on his rookie contract. An intradivision trade may be difficult to swallow, though, and Chicago, which doesn't have a fourth-round pick, could probably stand to keep all of its selections after trading so many in recent years to move up to take Trubisky in the 2017 draft and to acquire Khalil Mack in 2018, among other moves by embattled GM Ryan Pace.